Nepalese Theater

Features Issue 77 Jul, 2010

Malla Kings built huge open spaces around their palaces. These spaces were used as an outdoor stage to host ritualistic events which were dramatized to project the king as the center fugure thereby increasing his influence over masses. The two lions that stand in the western side of Bhaktapur palace are the remains of one such stage.   

For many, Nepalese theater happens to be an unex plored territory. Theaters provide an opportunity to come alive with the ancient traditions and culture of this sacred land, and offer a peek into the country’s state of affairs, in the most entertaining way there is. Plays and dramas based on social subjects are a reflection on the Nepali way of life, and those with historical and religious themes conjure up centuries old traditions springing from real and mythical worlds, the impressions of which are still very much relevant.

The historian Satya Mohan Joshi says that the theatrical traditions in Nepal started with dabali, a raised platform with performing area inside four portable sliding pillars that could be carried around from place to place. In some cases, ropes were used for delineation in place of pillars. “The dabali, in Nepal, was used as a mode for delivering orders and directives by the rulers to their subjects, forging a channel of communication and educating the masses,” says Joshi. “Use of theater in those forms, as historical evidences show, dates as long back as 5th century AD, when the kings of Lichhvi dynasty ruled the country.”

Religious and tantric customs, in the form of dance-dramas, took center stage of the evolving theater traditions in Nepal after the Malla kings came to power in 1200 AD. The Mallas, who ruled the kingdom for the next 500 years, were great lovers of art and, according to historians, rather than sit back as spectators they took part in most of the performances, appearing either in a role of king or as a representative of a god.
Pratap Malla, who ruled the valley from 1641 to 1674, for example, played the role of Narsimha (Sanskrit for ‘manlion’), the reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu in a half-human, half lion form to protect his devotee Prahlad from the wrath of his father Hiranyakashyapu, the king of demons. Lord Vishnu emerges out of a pillar, when the demon king, instigated by his son’s conviction about the lord’s presence in every iota of existence, smashes it to prove him wrong. The play is still performed during the months of October/November in the streets of Patan inside Kathmandu and called Narsingh Naach (‘dance’) or Kartik Naach (see the complete story of Kartik Naach in ECS magazine, January 2008). The performers wear gigantic masks with large black eyes and overgrown teeth protruding from between each corner of the painted lips.    

There are a dozens of other dramatic dance forms performed during such festivals as Indrajatra (Indra signifies the god of rains and heaven, jatra means procession) in the month of September; Gaijatra (‘cow procession’) in August/September; and Machendranath Jatra (a rain festival; the name is from Matsyaindra where matsya means ‘fish’ in Sanskrit) each May/June. The dance and various dramatic movements at each of these jatras is choreographed and supported, as in Malla times, by a traditional orchestra.

As in all these cyclical performances, the kings were invariably the protagonists. They used the streets for theater in which to exercise their influence over the masses, using public spaces in and around their palaces, much as the Greeks used amphitheaters. According to a UNESCO study: “The palaces were constructed or modified in such a way that such activities involving a large audience could be performed comfortably within the palace precincts.”
A walk around Kathmandu’s Hanuman Dhoka Palace is revealing of this use of theatrical space. The contemporary Nepalese playwright, Abhi Subedi, in his book Nepali Theatre as I See It, points out that Nasal Chok in Kathmandu’s Basantapur palace area, is named after Nasadyo or Lord Shiva (supreme of all Hindu gods) who is also called Nataraja or the God of Dance. And the two lions that stand on the western side of the Malla palace in Bhaktapur are believed to be the remains of an outdoor stage built by one of the Malla kings. 

According to tradition, on the last day of Indrajatra festival each year, a chariot would drive the Malla king to the palace of the virgin goddess Kumari, who blessed him with another blissful year of rule. On that very day in 1768 AD, however, Prithvi Narayan Shah took over power in the valley and forced the last Malla king, Jaya Prakash Malla, to flee the chariot, then rode in his place all the way to the palace of the virgin goddess who legitimized his rule by putting a tika on his forehead. This event established the founding of the modern Shah dynasty.   

Familial and ministerial wrangling and infightings brought the progress of theatrical culture to near halt during the Shah rule. Though the crossing of swords continued, theatrically noteworthy developments happened after Ranas established their proxy rule that snatched real power from the Shahs. The increasing influence of the Ranas, known for their grand and lavish lifestyle, ushered in modern theatre culture, according to Satya Mohan Joshi.

“I wouldn’t call them modern, though, as the so-called modern theater only imitated plays in Urdu and Parsi languages, much of which were on romantic themes like laila-majhnu replete with song and dance sequences,” says the veteran historian scornfully. Though the Ranas never thought of plays as any more than a mode of entertainment, the positive trend that set in with their interest in theater was its eventual institutionalization.

Rangakarmis (artists) were kept on a payroll and were frequently hired to perform to entertain the autocrats, their family and guests. Only female rangakarmis were hired, as the rulers were wary of any possibility of brewing immoral liaisons inside the palace with the presence of male rangakarmis. So Inside the palace it was an all-woman show with women masquerading as men to play the male characters. The gender sensitivity in the theaters outside the palace gave rise to an exactly opposite trend, in the form of all male shows, where the men played roles of women!

The Natyashala, a hall for performing plays and dance, was built inside the Singha Durbar in 1930s. Natya means ‘related to dance’ and is derived from the Sanskrit word nritya, whereas shala signifies house. The Natyashala or Dance House had a proper seating arrangement for the audience and a balcony large enough to accommodate the family and relatives of the Ranas. These theaters also experimented with multimedia; i.e., visual and audio effects, albeit in a ‘non-technical’ way. For example, heavy stones were rolled from upstairs down to the empty space right underneath the stage to create the sounds of thunder or of war. Similarly, multiple curtains painted with the scenes depicting the story set-up were also used.

Joshi says most of the ruling Ranas and their influential relatives had a theater inside their palaces and bungalows. Separate passages connecting the rooms inside and another one leading the invited outsiders in to the theater were built. Babar Mahal, Shree Mahal, Narayanhiti Palace, etc., all had built-in theaters. “The one at Narayanhiti Palace, the residence of the current King Gyanendra, still exists,” says Joshi, “though in a dysfunctional state since King Tribhuwan ascended the throne.” The arrival of TV and films to the palace pulled the curtains down forever.   

Cloistered inside the Singha Durbar, the Natyashala was accessible only to people of Royal lineage and those with connections; the common Nepalis had to wait for a theater of their own, until 1959 when the Rashtriya Naach Ghar (National Dance House) was built in Jamal, close to Rani Pokhari. The building was burnt down in 1960 and rebuilt after two years in 1962. Down the ages, Nepalese theater too has bore the brunt of the political and social malaise which contributed to a great extent in holding back it’s activities. And, though it has a very rich culture of it’s own, until recently it has struggled to etch out an independent identity in want of reach and resources. There is good news in store, however, for those who have had to put their desires to watch a play on hold due to the lack of a well-built theater in Nepal.

On the one hand, government is also investing heavily to revive Rashtriya Naach Ghar, now rechristened as Sanskriti Sansthan. The government has doled out more than Rs 160 million to construct the Sansthan’s multi-story building at Jamal on the site of the old Naach Ghar close to the flyway bridge. The new structure is nearing completion. It will house a world-class theater set-up to match international standards. An 800 seat capacity theater is on the first floor. The building’s ground floor has spaces for shops and other commercial activities and basement will be used as a parking lot. Meanwhile, the Nepal Academy (formerly Royal Nepal Academy), in Kamaladi, which has by far the best infrastructure for staging plays, has become overburdened with responsibility looking after all aspects of arts: fine arts, literature, music and theater. As a result, it is being divided into three academies, one of which is dedicated only to promote music and theater.

The Nepal Academy was establish in the year 1957, but did not have a permanent office until 1968 when the grand structure, which stands in the middle of sprawling landscaped area, was built under the initiative of King Mahendra. The Academy in its heyday produced a lot of talented actors who went on to become highly popular actors of Nepalese film. Today, among the active theater persons, in some way or another most were associated with the Academy in the past.